MLB: The picture is becoming clearer

By Andy Harris, WSOE Sports

Besides October, this is my favorite time of the baseball season.  Just enough time has passed for us to make sound analysis on a given team or player, so we can finally discard the small sample size disclaimer.  At the same time, more than enough time remains for the playoff picture to change completely.  It’s the perfect time of year for airheads like me- we’ve finally played enough games to get a good idea of how the divisional races will shape up, but enough time remains that it isn’t obvious which teams are October bound.  Well, except the Dodgers.  I mean you think the Giants can catch them?  Back to my point, we can start to reassess every assumption we formed back in March and reevaluate the playoff picture.  On that note (a C flat), here are some of my thoughts thus far on the season to date.

Texas is a legitimate playoff team.  The only thing holding this team back from a playoff spot last year was their total lack of pitching.  They scored the most runs in baseball last year, but allowed the most as well.  They sit at 31-21 right now, and they’re not riding their bats to that mark.   It’s been their pitching.  I’ll admit that their starting rotation has been overachieving, but that’s likely the workings of their savant pitching coach, Mike Maddux, who has a history of taking mediocre pitchers and turning them into successful ones.  The Rangers bullpen has been spectacular as well, with the additions of Darren O’Day and Jason Jennings.  They may very well improve that staff as well.  They are the leading candidate to sign rehabbing ace Ben Sheets late this summer, and they could get a boost from the farm, as many of their talented young pitching prospects stand to get the call at some point this season.  We also need to give their defense some credit, as they’ve gone from being one of the worst defensive teams to one of the best in the past year.   Oh, and back to that hitting…it’ll come around.  Once Josh Hamilton is healthy and Chris Davis remembers how to hit, this team will mash once again.  When you stack a loaded offense on top of a strong pitching staff, you have a bona fide playoff team on your hands. 

Chicago (NL) was probably overrated coming into the season.  Look, before you flame me because they’re battling a slew of injuries, hear me out.  I still think this is a good team, one that will make a serious push in the NL Central before all’s said and done.  But this team wasn’t supposed to “just make a push.”  They were supposed to run away with the division.  The loveable losers were thought to be not only the class of the Central, but of the entire NL.  Unfortunately, this is 2009 now, not 2008, and a tough reality is dawning on the Northsiders: they aren’t as good as they were last year.  In 2008, they received a lot of performances that they won’t get again, mere statistical outliers.  Ryan Dempster is a league-average pitcher, not the ace he seemed to be last year.  Carlos Zambrano- I know I’ll get flak for this- isn’t an ace anymore.  Look at his career stats.  He’s still just above average, but he’s been in clear decline for 3-4 years now.  Derrek Lee is in the same boat; he’s no longer an All-Star Caliber 1st basemen.  Soriano probably isn’t this bad, but how often do we see a Dominican player completely fall off the cliff in their early 30s?  It’s almost like they have a tendency to lie about their age…Catcher Geovany Soto is destined for a great career, but is mired in a sophomore slump.  Milton Bradley is injury prone, temperamental, and coming off a career year- he was poised to disappoint.  Not to mention they’ve lost guys like Jim Edmonds and Mark DeRosa, who had great seasons for them last year.  Again, this isn’t a bad team.  They’re underperforming and are still sitting at .500.   They very well may still make the playoffs- in fact, I still think they’ll win the Central.  Just don’t expect this team to rebound and dominate the National League over the summer like they did last year. 

Tampa Bay is a lot better than it appears.  They’re currently sitting at 27-28 (5 games back of Boston), a record that belies their talent level.  They’ve scored the most runs in the AL, despite down years and injuries from DH Pat Burrell and centerfielder B.J. Upton.  The starting pitching has underachieved as well, as Scott Kazmir and Andy Sonnanstine have both turned in awful seasons to date.  They’re bullpen has struggled mightily as well, but I can’t imagine the best pen of 2008 won’t rebound at all.  On the bright side, most of these problems should rectify themselves through either regression to the mean or by getting healthy going forward.  Their Pythagorean record (a nifty little formula that predicts W-L through runs for and against; just Google Pythagoras if you’re interested.  Most of the related articles will be about some Greek guy, but eventually you should find one about the formula) is 32-23, which would actually put them out front in the AL East.  They’ve simply lost a ridiculous number of one-run games (in which they’re 5-11), which again should correct itself through future regression.  Unfortunately they just lost both Akinori Iwamura and Jason Bartlett for the season; the latter had been destroying the ball thus far.  Ben Zobrist and Willy Aybar are more than adequate replacements, but it’s still a tough loss.  With or without them, this is an elite team, even in the tough AL East.  Look for them to surge forward this summer.  I still stand by them as my pick to win the division.

The Dodgers will have baseball’s best record.  However, they won’t be baseball’s best team.  They’re fortunate enough to play in the humorously bad NL West, in which the 2nd place team is sitting at .500.  Given they’ll play the Giants, D’backs, Padres, and Rockies 18 times a year each, they have a scheduling advantage that no other team has.  They’ll inflate their record by feasting on the NL’s soft underbelly and run away from the rest of the pack.  But again, I stress that they aren’t baseball’s best team.  They’re an elite team, especially once Manny returns, but when Tampa, Boston, Philly, and both New York Teams are firing at full strength, I’m not really sure that L.A. can keep pace.  That pitching is way too thin and the lineup isn’t as good as it’s been.  Again they’re a solid playoff team, but when it’s all said and done, I don’t think they’ll be as good as their record indicates.

Atlanta will need a bigger bat than Nate Mclouth to reach October.  It was a good trade for them, but that team has an anemic offense.  They may be a respectable 9th in the NL in runs scored, but every team they’re fighting with for a playoff spot has a more prolific offense.  Their pitching might be better, but do you really think they can stack up with Philadelphia or New York if they score 150 fewer runs?  If they want somebody who can carry them to the postseason, they needed to make a trade for Matt Holliday, not Nate.  He’s certainly an offensive upgrade over Jordan Schaeffer, but he’ll give back any runs he creates because he’s an awful defender.  “BuTt hE 1 a gOld GlOvE!!!11one” Yes, and so did Bobby Abreu and Derek Jeter.  I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s no correlation between actual defensive abilities and gold gloves.  Check out Thefieldingbible.com to see who’s good defensively.  Please, never use anything like fielding percentage or gold gloves or web gems when evaluating a defender.  Please.  Back to Atlanta, they certainly COULD win the East, but I don’t see it happening barring a slew of injuries to their northern rivals or a trade from an impact bat.  They’re just not there yet.

Detroit might be proving it a year late, but the Tigers are a legitimate World Series contender.  After their offseason trade before 2008 for Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis, the prominent opinion was that Detroit was the best team in the AL.  Unfortunately, two things happened: Their pitching fell apart and their poor defense became apparent.  After a year of struggling Detroit has finally turned it around.  Here’s how they did it:

Defense.  The Tiggers [no sic] made a bevy of cheap offseason moves to renovate their defense, and therefore bolster their pitching.  By cutting Gary Sheffield they could move slow-footed Carlos Guillen to move to DH, where his D wasn’t a liability.  That allowed them to slot able defender Josh Anderson in left field.  They let no-range shortstop Edgar Renteria walk and replaced him with defensive wizard Adam Everett (who’s actually been hitting just as well).  They moved Miguel Cabrera from 3rd to 1st, where his lack of range and throwing arm won’t hurt the team as badly.  Brandon Inge, who is a terrific defender, was moved from catcher to third base (his natural position), so now the Tigers can actually turn balls hit to the hot corner into outs.  It may be easy to overlook the effect of team defense, but a solid defense can do wonders for a pitching staff.  The 2008 Rays are a prime example.

Pitching.  This staff was hugely disappointing in 2008, and was the main reason this team didn’t even sniff October.  They have pulled a full 180 in the last 8 months.  For one thing, the bullpen has just been lights out.  No way around that.  Justin Verlander is finally evolving into the dominant starter everyone believed he would become, and his overall 2009 stats don’t show just how tremendous he’s been over the past month.  The trade for Edwin Jackson now looks like the steal of the winter, and thus far Detroit has had dual aces.  Rick Porcello has been terrific thus far, as the former 1st-round pick has an ERA of 3.70 through his first 10 big league starts.  Jeremy Bonderman has been dominating in the minors during is rehab assignments, and looks ready to rejoin the Tigers any day now.  Oh, and don’t look now, but the D-Train posted back to back quality starts (before getting shelled by Baltimore).  Progress, my friends, progress.  

Detroit’s front office has to be pleased with themselves.  When this team was engineered, it was succeed because of its bats.  When that failed, the team was completely rearranged and rebuilt upon solid pitching and defense. 

Like I said in the intro, enough time has finally passed for us to get an idea of how the final 2/3 of the season will shake out.  We now are pretty sure which teams are poised to make an October run and which teams won’t fulfill their offseason expectations.  The beauty of sports, however, is that in the end, we really have no idea.  I can promise you that there are still surprises left this season.  I’m almost positive that at least one team that looks like an odds-on postseason favorite will come up short, and one team that currently looks dead in the water will sneak in.  It always happens that way, doesn’t it?

Contact Information:
Andy Harris
WSOE Sports
aharris20@elon.edu

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